This morning I noticed myself starting to get frustrated. I felt the rising tension in my chest, felt my breath become a bit faster and strained.
I consider this an early warning sign!
If I don’t take head at this point, things can go pear-shaped.
Can you relate?
At the time, I was in the bathroom, with my son sitting in the bath refusing to wash his hair. But I really wanted him to do it.
This could easily have become a power struggle between us, where I got increasingly agitated until I was in “Fight or Flight”. Then I probably would have resorted to making threats. And my son would have felt stressed, over-powered, and upset.
And it’s quite likely that the hair washing might still not have happened, but we would have both ended up feeling sad and disconnected.
I knew I had to do something to change the trajectory. To calm my nervous system.
I intuitively gave myself a “time out” from the situation, reducing my “danger cues”. I threw a towel over my head and focussed on my breath. I enjoyed the sensation of being in the darkness under the towel, in my private little sanctuary.
The pleasant sensations increased my “safety cues”, and my nervous system started to settle. And it was a great way of getting a little bit of space to myself, because it came across as silly or strange, rather than scary or hurtful, for my son.
In fact, my son asked me what I was doing! I told him that I needed to take a few breaths because I was starting to feel frustrated. I was giving myself some space in a way that took responsibility for my own feelings, without blaming him.
So it was also modelling for him a helpful way that we can respond to our own frustration.
After a few seconds, I was feeling ready to do something different. I made the decision to go in with play.
I opted for a game that I had a lot of success with when my son was much younger. Fortunately he’s still open to playful approaches, even though his response is usually a bit less enthusiastic these days!
I knelt down next to the bath, grabbed the shampoo bottle, and “personified” it. This is one of my favourite kinds of play.
I gave the shampoo bottle a personality and a voice, and made it beg my son to let it wash his hair. It begged and begged, and when my son still wouldn’t agree, the shampoo bottle had a bit of a “cry”. “Oh, boo hoo hoo, why won’t you let me wash your hair?”.
There are so many things I love about play as a parenting strategy.
One of my favourite things is that it helps me let off steam! This game let me express some of the frustration I had about not being able to wash my son’s hair. But by making it about the shampoo bottle, it gave me some distance from the situation, and allowed me to relax a little.
Another fantastic thing about play is that my body language, facial expression, and tone of voice were coming from the “social engagement” system of my nervous system, which acted as a “safety cue” for my son, and helped him to soften a bit.
It’s the opposite of me going with a “power-over” approach, which would have been expressed very differently on my face and in my voice, and felt threatening for my son, increasing both of our stress levels.
My son had a little laugh, releasing some of the sympathetic activation (stress and tension) from his nervous system. And, after a short time, he agreed to let me wash his hair.
He still didn’t enjoy having his hair washed, but he was able to cooperate. There was no struggle and no tears.
I’ve written more about how we can support ourselves to come out of “Fight or Flight” and back into “Safe and Social” mode here: How can we shift from “Fight or Flight” back to a peaceful and loving state?